Looking Back on Ten Years: It’s About the Relationships

Chocolopolis, Community / Friday, July 27th, 2018

I sat down to write my reflections on ten years in the chocolate industry with the intention of posting something before I left to speak at the Fine Chocolate Industry Association in New York at the end of June. I started writing and I found that I couldn’t stop. I had so much to say. I fondly started referring to it as my “magnum opus”. It needed more time, so I put it down while in New York and then on vacation in Alaska. I returned to touch it up and I was ready to publish it.

Then I showed my draft to one of my employees, and she quickly deflated my bubble.

I had written about the significant growth and changes in the craft chocolate industry, which began at roughly the same time I opened Chocolopolis. My writing included a comparison of bar prices and weights then and now. I talked about the innovations in cacao sourcing that have enabled small-batch, craft chocolate makers to purchase cacao more directly from farmers while also getting cacao with better fermentation. I had written about the things I find fascinating and inspiring about the craft chocolate industry.

Jessica, my employee, pointed out that readers probably wanted to hear more of my personal story and why I started Chocolopolis. We had a debate about exactly what that meant because much of what I love is what I’ve written about in my “magnum opus” (which I will post in two parts in the next few days). As she said to me, “It’s full of interesting facts, but I don’t get a sense of you.” My comeback was, “But this is what I enjoy about the business.” I love the business of retail, I love food, I love educating people and I want to make a difference internationally. Perhaps it’s more of an intellectual approach to retail than most business owners take, but it’s where my passion takes hold. And it’s what attracted me to chocolate in the first place. But chocolate is not what spurred me to open a retail store.

Jessica’s comment made me think about the more personal aspects of the business that I love, and I realized that my customers are my biggest raison d’être. The opportunity to build a community is what spurred me to open a retail store. I hark back to a discussion I had as I was getting ready to open Chocolopolis. When I told some of my former Amazon colleagues that I was starting Chocolopolis, their comments included, “Why aren’t you just selling online?” To which I responded, “Because I want to get to know my customers.”

It’s the relationships I’ve built with customers that are at the heart of why I opened a retail store in the first place.  I get incredible energy and fulfillment from the chocolate community we’ve created. Many of my customers have become close personal friends, a circumstance I was not expecting. While I wanted to get to know my customers, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might want to get to know me, too. They bring me chocolate from Paris, Scotland, Spain, Central America and other places they travel. They offer me jars of their jams and hot sauces as they experiment with formulations. They bring me business cards and stories from the chocolate makers they’ve met. One of them has convinced me that you can quaff vinegar straight from a glass and have it be a very pleasant experience. I even have customers in far-away places like Austin, TX who call me for chocolate recommendations. My Austin customer and I talk politics and catch up while I help him shop for chocolate over the phone. I will finally meet him in person in September when I head to Dallas to speak at the Dallas Chocolate Festival. And then there are the small chocophiles.  It’s been particularly fun getting to know a handful of  our youngest customers who are now in high school after a decade of shopping at Chocolopolis. These kids inspire me because I didn’t have an appreciation for fine chocolate when I was their age.

If you’ve been following our blog, you’ve probably seen the recent Customer Spotlights I’ve been writing for our happy hour features. These have been particularly fun to write and share because they tell the stories of many of these individuals. I look forward to sharing more of their stories with you.

I am an only child, as is my mother, so we don’t have a lot of close family, and the ones we have are mostly in DC. My dad’s family is larger, but they’re mostly in New York. I often wish we had more family to rely on, but my husband, Mark Kotzer, likes to remind me that we create our own family. Between my wonderful customers and my fabulous employees, I’ve created that family.

I feel fortunate to have found a calling that has allowed me to put together a diverse list of passions and to have them all come together in Chocolopolis. I had the opportunity to get involved in a nascent industry just as it was beginning to take shape and to help affect change not only for chocolate makers but also for cacao farmers. As an educator and a writer, I share the stories of the cacao farmers, the countries of origin and the chocolate makers with a wider audience, bringing light to their stories and making them approachable and interesting to my customers. I draw on our experiences as a chocolate retailer to illustrate the economics of the industry and how that has changed in a decade.

Our new location and format have enabled me to do more of the things I love. The best part is that I get to spend more time with customers, offering them samples of single-origin chocolates I think they might like, and talking about all manner of subjects with them. I also get to spend more time writing, educating and thinking about how to help the craft chocolate industry be successful in the long run. For me it doesn’t get much better than that.

Join me for a cookout this Sunday, July 29 in the courtyard at Chocolopolis from noon until 3pm to celebrate ten years of building chocolate community. We’ll be grilling sausages (plus something for the vegetarians), we’ll have sides and we’ll provide the fixings for s’mores. Please let us know you’re coming so we can make sure to have enough food. You can RSVP by replying to our Facebook event, or you can respond to this post.